They’ve been featured in everything from movies like City of God to computer games as popular as the Call of Duty franchise. But could Brazilian favelas – the sprawling, urban slums found throughout the country – teach us how to improve our cities?
Associate Professor Justyna Karakiewicz thinks so. Based in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, Associate Professor Karakiewicz believes that city planners are too prescriptive in their outlook.
“More than any other urban area, favelas are widely regarded as being the most flexible and adaptable in their operation and use. This is a desirable trait, as cities are constantly changing from the moment they become inhabited, even if they are designed as ‘perfect objects’ to begin with,” she says.
“Nature is not perfect, it is inherently designed to change and adapt. In not easily allowing change, we are making cities less resilient for the future.”
Associate Professor Karakiewicz and Dr Michael Kirley from the Melbourne School of Engineering will join with colleagues at São Paulo’s University of Campinas (UNICAMP) to closely model the complex adaptive systems inherent in Brazil’s favelas. They’re hopeful that in doing so, they can better articulate what makes them such a dynamic environment.
“The favela seems to have this ability to reconfigure itself based on needs,” Associate Professor Karakiewicz says. “They are not over-designed or pre-determined. The separation between public and private spaces is not as strict, allowing for strong adaptation between the two – a washing line strung across the road for example, or a public workshop operating out of a private house.
“In many ways they are the epitome of affordable living, being located in a place that allows residents to be entrepreneurial and have access to ways of making a living. Contrast that with what we have here in Australia; when we set up affordable housing, we’re often putting it in areas where it’s very difficult for people to access work and the cost of living is not affordable.”
The favela project was one of four to receive grants under a scientific co-operation agreement between the University and the São Paulo Research Federation (FAPESP). The agreement, first announced in 2013, provides funding for researchers in both countries to undertake collaborative exchanges.
It is expected there will be five rounds of funding provided, to support up to 25 new research collaborations.
Professor Dick Strugnell, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Graduate Research) says the range and quality of applicants for the inaugural round of grants was very pleasing.
“As the first joint program with an Australian institution, the scheme demonstrates that there’s strong interest in both research communities to enhance ‘South-South’ research and research training links with São Paulo.”
Other projects funded in the current round include expanding work on prions – the infectious agents that can cause neurological diseases such as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) – as well as lymph-collection in animals.
Dr Jean-Pierre Scheerlinck, the Director of the Centre for Animal Biotechnology at the University is leading the latter project. He says that Melbourne researchers and those at the University of São Paulo (USP) are hopeful they can develop a better understanding of how ticks affect livestock in tropical locations.
“When parasites in these areas bite cattle, they interfere with the clotting system of the animal, transfer diseases like Babesia and quite possibly disrupt the animal’s immune system,” he says.
The process of collecting lymph fluid – a blood-like liquid that drains from tissue including skin affected by parasite bites – that Dr Scheerlinck and his team have developed is currently unknown in Brazil.
“Our aim is to apply this technology, developed to study vaccines, to investigate the effects of tick bites on the local immune response.”
Professor Strugnell says all the grant recipients are working in areas where there is great social need.
“Brazil is a priority for the University under the Research at Melbourne strategy ‘Ensuring Excellence and Impact to 2025’. São Paulo is the leading location for research in Brazil and FAPESP has played a critical role in the development of this capacity,” he says.
“The relationship with FAPESP is therefore critical to our ambitions for stronger research and research training links with Latin America.”
The full list of successful proposals is available at